Home Blog Blog HQ Voices from the Field: An Interview with Packard Foundation CEO, Carol Larson

Voices from the Field: An Interview with Packard Foundation CEO, Carol Larson

Carol Larson

In an effort to help EPIP members gain value from the experience of professionals in the field, EPIP has started a new interview series. Blog readers will be able to learn valuable lessons from leaders in the field.

The third interview in this series is with Carol Larson, President and CEO of the David & Lucile Packard Foundation.  

1. How did you get your start in philanthropy?

I was a partner in a law firm in Los Angeles, doing civil litigation, and I decided to get back to my passion. I had gone to law school being interested in policy to improve the health and education of children. Earlier in my career I’d worked on the rights of children with special needs and also children in the foster care system, and I’d continued my involvement with children’s issues as a volunteer and through service on nonprofit boards while in private practice. I knew I wanted to get back into children’s advocacy and policy work full-time. Through some good old-fashioned networking I met someone at the Packard Foundation who gave me a short-term contract to do some policy research. That was in 1988, and I became an employee in 1989. I never left.

2. As CEO of the Packard Foundation, you work to develop a culture of innovation.  Can you share four tips on how you believe the next generation of philanthropy professionals can help cultivate innovation in their own organizations?

There’s a lot that people can do to cultivate innovation in their own work:

A. Be curious. We have a lot of content experts at the Packard Foundation, but we also try to hire some generalists too, and to make sure that people in our programs are constantly learning about issues and ideas outside their areas of expertise. They do this both within the Foundation and through networking outside the Foundation.

B. Listen to lots of people. Build and nurture a very broad network, in person and online.  And make sure that there are ways for people you’ve never met to get ideas to you as well. At Packard we do that through our web site, and increasingly through Twitter, and our staff spend a lot of time traveling to the places where we work around the world.

C. Don’t be afraid to try new things, to take risks, and to fail. This is a hard lesson for all of us—we want to see big changes in the world, and we don’t want to fail when critical issues like women’s reproductive health and the future of our oceans are at stake.  But no great success comes without some failure. The trick is what you learn from the failures…which leads me to #4.

D. Evaluate rigorously, learn all the time, and share what you learn. At the Packard Foundation, learning for program improvement is a core part of our culture. For more on our commitment to evaluation and learning, visit our web site at http://www.packard.org/about-the-foundation/how-we-operate-2/evaluation/.

3. What are four important lessons you have learned from your career in philanthropy that could help early career professionals in their own careers?

A. Cultivate a broad range of experiences, both within and outside philanthropy. I had eleven years of work experience as a lawyer before I came to philanthropy, working in both the private and nonprofit sectors. Even though I’ve been at the Packard Foundation for 25 years, I did many different things before becoming President, including working as a researcher, a program officer, and a Vice-President. Regardless of when or how you enter the field, it’s important to give yourself exposure to lots of different kinds of jobs.  It’ll make you a more seasoned and successful professional, and you’ll also get a better sense of what you really like to do.

B. Find mentors. I was lucky to have some great mentors in my career, including professors from my undergraduate years with whom I stayed in touch, the late John Gardner and my predecessor as President, Dick Schlosberg.  Find people who make it part of their job to help you develop your talent.

C. Build professional networks.  Professional associations like EPIP and the Council on Foundations are great for this. The friends that you make now will stay with you for your entire life. I have a group of friends that I made when I entered philanthropy 25 years ago, and we still meet for dinner frequently. All are now senior foundation executives.

D. Make time for your family. Work isn’t everything, and you need to find employers who recognize and value that. I’m really proud that while at the Packard Foundation I was able to raise two terrific daughters and that the Foundation supported my personal goals as well as my professional ones.

4. As a leader in philanthropy, what are three skills you have found to be the most valuable in your job? What worked best for you in developing these skills?  

I think the most valuable skills for me are all “soft” skills: the ability to listen and respect all points of view; the ability to negotiate; the ability to synthesize lots of complex information into a compelling narrative that people will believe in and support. My legal training was very valuable in helping me to develop those skills. But mostly I honed them through a lot of lived experience—working on research projects, writing articles, giving presentations, and working with my board of trustees, who are very analytical and rigorous thinkers, but also good listeners and coaches. There was no magic shortcut for me to learning these skills. I’m a big believer in on the job training—in giving people stretch assignments that enable them to challenge themselves and learn—and in mentoring people while they are on the job.

5. When it comes to your work, what thought leaders do you regularly follow?

There are so many that it’s hard to choose! But John Gardner remains an inspiration to me. I also follow the work of Tom Tierney at Bridgespan and Marc Freedman at Encore.org. And I think Larry Kramer is embarking on some very interesting work at the Hewlett Foundation. I’m really enjoying watching him work.

6. In your opinion, what do you think the future of philanthropy will be? What do philanthropy professionals and foundations need to do now to ensure its future success?

I think it’s a very exciting time for philanthropy. The sector is growing rapidly as new wealth is created both in the U.S. and around the world. New vehicles for giving are sparking new thinking about how to accelerate social change—impact investing, donor-advised funds, and giving circles, to name just a few. And we’re seeing the emergence of new approaches to solving complex social problems: big data, technology, networks, and social enterprise.

Of course, the future is not all rosy. Foundations don’t often do a good job of collaborating with each other, and for that matter neither do many of the nonprofits they fund. Many nonprofits are struggling to survive in the face of continuing economic pressure and government cutbacks.  The philanthropic sector itself faces regulatory and legislative pressures at the federal and state levels. And most importantly, the wicked problems that our planet faces are not getting any smaller or easier. The need for philanthropy is greater than ever, and the challenges are more daunting than ever. We need to be up to the task.

7. In closing, do you have additional advice you would like to give to early career philanthropic professionals?

I feel tremendously optimistic about emerging leaders in philanthropy today. You are diverse and comfortable across cultures; you are more technologically savvy than any generation in history; and you bridge the public, private, and NGO sectors with ease. We need your skills, your creativity, and your passion. It will be great to learn from you in the years to come!  I for one am all ears.

This interview was conducted by EPIP Social Media Fellow, Sophia Guevara.

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